The House Energy and Commerce Committee overwhelmingly approved a bill to establish an independent high-risk, high-reward biomedical research division, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, to pursue medical breakthroughs.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the committee voted 53-3 to advance the ARPA-H Act to the full House floor for a vote. The agency is a biomedical research version of the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, famed for its role in developing the internet and GPS. The “no” votes came from three Republican members: Billy Long of Missouri, Debbie Lesko of Arizona, and John Curtis of Utah.


The bill, first introduced in October 2021 by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), would establish the standalone ARPA-H within the Department of Health and Human Services as outlined in President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget proposal. In addition to the $1 billion allocated to the agency in the 2022 Appropriations Act, the bill would also authorize a fund to be replenished for the next five years with cash infusions of $500 million annually.

“ARPA-H will be outside of NIH and will embody the nimble spirit of highly regarded and successful DARPA to pursue large scale high risk projects,” Eshoo said Wednesday.

The majority of Energy and Commerce Committee members determined that ARPA-H would be best as a freestanding agency separate from the National Institutes of Health, where Biden first proposed it be housed. Eshoo's bill would overrule Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, who told members of Congress in March that ARPA-H, as currently funded by the appropriations bill, would be housed within NIH to make use of the agency’s administrative functions, though it would be physically separate from NIH.

Members who favored making ARPA-H its own entity within HHS cited concerns that the research would be too tied up in NIH’s bureaucratic red tape and a slow, conservative grant-making process. NIH research is often more conventional and takes place over longer stretches of time, giving researchers greater latitude for exploration. ARPA-H, meanwhile, will fund fast-moving, high-risk projects meant to accelerate the development of medical breakthroughs.

“I also am so concerned about what Secretary Becerra said that this would be basically co-located within NIH,” Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX) said Wednesday. “That's a mistake. That's wrong. This needs to be freestanding.”

Becerra also said in March that the ARPA-H director would report to him, not the current NIH director, which was also spelled out in Eshoo’s bill. The head of ARPA-H would be appointed by the president but would also need final approval from the Senate.


In addition to the bill advanced Wednesday, the Senate is considering a bill that would place ARPA-H within NIH but require that it not be located in close proximity to the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland.